Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Quote of the Moment

"The Internet, God bless it, doesn't really specialize in nuance." —John Green

The State of the 'Blog 2014

Oh boy. I don't really consider 2014 a good year for the 'blog. Very little original content to begin with, and not much else period. My main shortage came from a continued disinterest in the news, which of course means I have nothing to say about the news. Green tech also remains slow, though a surprising amount has come to maturity, with LEDs leading the way, and solar slowly making in-roads, but still no replacement for batteries (supercapacitors are still slowly making progress), and little in the way of anything else that caught my attention.

In positive news, I did add the new "apocalyptical" tag, so we will see where I can go with that in the new year. Bookworming still seems a good fit, even if I'm the only one that uses it. Really, all I have to do is knock myself out of my malaise, and things could be off to the races again. Which begs the question of how to do that.

I have the capability now to record video games, and even live stream in low quality. I have the "pure fiction" tag just sitting there waiting to be populated with more RPG/gaming stuff. "Programming" remains my white whale of writing tasks, and one I should chase more often. So it's not like there is a shortage of stuff I could be writing. As always it remains a question of time and energy. 2014 left me with little of either to spare. Early signs for 2015 are not looking promising, so no promises.

As usual, if there is something from my categories you want to see more of, just ask and I'll see what I can do.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bookworming: 2014 Summary

It's cliche to say that I can't believe the year is coming to an end already, but that's the way I feel. Let's look back at this year's reads:

My rating scale:
* I didn't care for it.
** Meh
*** Good for those who like that sort of thing.
**** Just plain good, likely to be read again some time.
***** Destined to be a personal favorite, likely to be read over and over again.

*****
Skin Game, Jim Butcher
The Peripheral, William Gibson

****
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan
Locke and Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft, Joe Hill
Locke and Key, Vol. 2: Head Games, Joe Hill

***
Divergent, Veronica Roth
The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
The Color of Magic, Terry Prachett
Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy
Revenant, Kat Richardson
Footprints in the Sand, Mary Jane Clark

**
The Te of Piglet, Benjamin Hoff
Shadowmarch, Tad Williams
Welcome to Mars, Ken Hollings
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

*
The Lost Years, Mary Higgins Clark

Seventeen books this year, a half-dozen higher than last year, and above one a month. Attribute that to my shorter commute.

Looking back over the scores, it was a fairly poor year of choices on my part. Highlights included the reliably fun Butcher and atmospheric wordsmith Gibson. Zealot was good in a year that really showed that I'm not involved in a Bible study group anymore, though whether my pastors would be pleased that I enjoyed it I am not so sure.

And finally, I'll note that I also post these reviews on Goodreads, if you prefer that platform.

Bookworming: The Lost Years

The Lost Years, Mary Higgins Clark, *
This one has too many characters with no development, behavior that police would never tolerate (we're talking Cabot Cove levels of interference here), some supposed sexual tension that didn't ever rise beyond awkward, and an idiot bad guy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On the Final Passing of Dr. Dobb's

Back in the days when magazines about computer programming were a thing that existed, there was only one I was interested in reading: Dr. Dobb's Journal. It was full of code, and technical subjects, and witty writing about code and technical subjects. I learned quite a few bits (no pun intended) of technique and knowledge from DDJ back in my early years learning about and being a programmer. I undoubtedly owe some of what I am now to the work they did then.

I will admit I stopped reading DDJ years ago. Computers got more complex; low level programming content was slowly taken over by library overviews and process articles. The speed of the web, and the explosion of programming's footprint ate all the magazines' lunches. But I haven't forgotten how I used to feel looking into those pages and thinking that maybe I could be that good someday.

I don't know if I am that good now. I'm too close to the subject to be able to tell. It did inspire me to keep trying to write about programming, which gave me an even bigger respect for those who do it well. Code can be such a dry, technical subject, and yet DDJ managed to be at its best informative, inspiring, and humorous.

The magazine itself has been out of print for many years now. Today we learned that the website carrying on the name will stop producing content at the end of the year. The programming world will carry on of course, but we shouldn't forget the value of Running Light Without Overbyte.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Bookworming: The Peripheral

The Peripheral, William Gibson, *****
A note on bias: Gibson is probably my favorite author.
The Peripheral manages to both continue the style of his more recent near-future novels and make a return to more obvious sci-fi. And what a return it is. In many ways, this is the most straightforward of his novels that I have read, though that isn't to say it is a light read.

At its core lies something of a murder mystery, though as so often is Gibson's way, it comes off as much a milieu piece as anything else. And though an older lady character gets involved in the investigation, the story has much more in common with "Ghost in the Shell" than "Murder, She Wrote".

On first brush, I am struck by the reflection of some of the same themes that go all the way back to Neuromancer. The power and other-ness of wielding vast sums of money. Technology not solving the human condition, but extending it, and life on the fringes contrasted with high society. But The Peripheral is a very, very different book than Neuromancer. There are movements of economic and state forces, much more mundane tech alongside the military-capable and esoteric elements, and as interesting and varied a collection of characters as Gibson has ever given us.

For my tastes, this one is right up there with Pattern Recognition in excellence and I will certainly be revisiting it in the future.

Headline Hunting

"Man injured by Amsterdam pop-up toilet" For those who doubt that we live in the future, there are places where toilets rise from the ground to provide relief to drunken pedestrians. And when angered (or, you know, malfunctioning) they can spring forth with enough might to throw a moped. And though it's a bummer for the guy that got injured, he has a great story to tell forever.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Snarky Side Notes

On this fine Monday evening, I am tired and cranky. Allow me to share that cranky with you fine folks, briefly.

President Obama came out in support of Net Neutrality today. I suppose that's pretty much the end of that, the megacorps have won again, because if there's one group that cares less about what's right for consumers than the corps, it's Congress, and because Not-What-Our-Opponent-Says seems to be the only political platform left in America.

That they call it "work-life" balance instead of "life-work" balance tells you pretty much all you need to know.

As a programmer with opinions about the tools he uses, I'm appalled that the business application world (the silent majority of programming) seems to be moving from the endless purgatory of C++ into the fiery pool of Javascript and CSS.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The 80s Make Everything More Epic

Here is one of the more nerdy pattern matches that my brain has ever inflicted on me. Ladies and gentlemen, how to use the technobabble from 80s cartoon Voltron (Lion version) as a checklist for starting your car:

  • Insert keys (keys)
  • Activate interlock (seatbelt)
  • Dynotherms connected (ignition)
  • Infracells are up (parking break)
  • Megathrusters are go (shift into gear)

And now you have something to look forward to as you go to work tomorrow.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Quote of the Moment: An Apocalyptic Review

"Every generation conjures its own apocalypses and dystopias. They give us an index of the collective anxieties of the era."

The New Yorker takes a look at one of my favorite classic post-apocalypse novels, A Canticle for Leibowitz, examining how the author's real life experience with apocalyptic events (World War II) influenced the book and his life.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

This Year's Halloween Costume

The time has come once again for me to pick my hypothetical Halloween costume. With wars and ebola stepping up the real life scary, I want something that will really upset people, maybe even provoke incoherent outbursts and irrational rage. The choice is clear: I will be a political campaign ad.

Bookworming: House of Leaves

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski, **
How to start describing a book with a dedication which reads "This is not for you."? At it's heart lies the tidy horror story told in a documentary made by a photojournalist of what happened when he and his family moved into a house that was somehow bigger on the inside than the outside. Because of the edited nature of a documentary, and because the documentary is of the creator's family, much of the motivations of those involved are unclear. It's therefore a good thing that we the readers are presented this narration in the context of an academic examination of the film, covering copious theories, diversions, and many, many annotated footnotes. Except that this academic treatise is presented to us by a man on the fringes of society who found said documents and adds his own commentary in yet more annotations and his own pages-long narrative diversions. He quickly lets us know that the author of the extended essay appears to be making up many of his references, and in fact there is no evidence the documentary exists. And yet, the man's notes give more and more evidence of mental decline and obsession with the document he found. And if that weren't enough the book's "editors" chime in with the dark context of the compiler's history, leading to further questions about what might be real and what not.

The word "house" always appears blue.

And so goes House of Leaves: metaphor within metaphor, unreliable narrator within unreliable narrator. Narrative chaining to analysis chaining to footnote, footnote of the footnote, and reference to the copious, seemingly unrelated appendices. This is less a novel than a work of art trying to deconstruct a wide variety of writing styles from within. The central horror story is a genuinely great one which taps directly into a subversion of home being a safe place. The entire book seems meant to have a similar effect on book lovers. It is more than just a non-linear style fostered by the jumps from main content to footnotes to end notes and back, the portions that represent the visual documentary also take on the aspects of that tale, changing orientation on the page, even flowing "through" the pages at one point.

So what did I actually think of it? Well, it certainly wan't an easy read. I can appreciate the artistry of it to some extent, but I also suspect that I lack the literary training or exposure to really appreciate some of the levels of irony (or is it nihilism?) going on within the pages. In the end, I can say, yes there is a good story in here, maybe even more than one, but digging it out is work. Judging by the comments on Goodreads, it is work you will either find rewarding or utterly pretentious. The one thing I can confidently say: this was the oddest book I have ever read.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ten Ways the World Ends

A quick link tonight to io9's taxonomy of fictional apocalypses. It provides an excellent primer into the ways fears feed into setting choices in apocalyptic stories.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Quote of the Moment

Hopelessness is the limit and beginning of a new kind of hope. You have to keep going – not to achieve dreams of beautiful mountaintop forests, but because life is more powerful than death. Hopelessness makes possible a new hope, a faith in the basic tissue of life that is stronger than any disaster. This is how humanity survives. This is the strength that keeps us going.”
–Naseer Hassan, as quoted by Roy Scranton in “Rolling Stone” “Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom”.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On Productivity

Another one of those posts came across Hacker News today. You know the ones, they promise dramatic improvement in your skills and/or your life if only you do some thing every day. Want to see the world differently and be a better artist? Draw every day. Want to be a better writer and and have more insight into yourself? Write every day. Want to be more productive and get things done? Follow (your choice of Pomodoro, GTD, the Seinfeld method, etc.) every day. Granted, all of these things are probably true. If you really want to improve, a disciplined, consistent pursuit of self-education via practice will certainly help you. However, I can't help but feel there is a downside to such advice.

Sure, I want to be more productive, to use my time better. I've never met anyone who doesn't. We all have finite lives, and most of us weren't born with the monetary means to do what we want all the time. But what happens if you really are too tired? What happens if doing X every day simply doesn't fit into your (or your children's) schedule? The desire to be more productive can change into guilt or depression over not checking that box every day.

As I approach what I hope will be the midpoint of my career, I find less and less time for my hobbies because I have a house to take care of, food to buy and prepare, clothes to launder, and work responsibilities that consume more of my time and energy than ever before. And I don't even have children. This, and repeated exposure to suggestions offered on the internet have lead me to seek my own answer to the question of becoming more productive. And since people seem to like to write these things down, I will share my secret with you today.

I believe happy, healthy, well rested people are the most productive. Shocking, right? So you want to be better at X? OK then, find a way to pursue it that does not impact your health or your happiness and does not drain away your energy. It works the other way too. If doing something has a positive effect on your energy, health, or happiness, then by all means find a way to keep doing it.

I want to be a better writer, so I started a blog. The archives clearly demonstrate that I don't write every day, and yet, I'm a better writer than when I began. Am I as better as I could have been if I wrote something every day? Nope, but that's all right. I don't get paid for this. There is no motivation here other than internal motivation, and thus, I can write whenever I wish and not write when I don't. This freedom from pressure makes me happier.

I want to be a better artist, but I've picked up my pencils maybe twice in the last three years, what does that mean? Well, it turns out that for me, drawing uses the same brain muscles as programming. Attempting to do it consistently makes me less capable at work because I'm mentally tired. So I don't draw much right now. That's OK, there will come a time when I am less mentally taxed at the office, and the drawing mood will strike again.

I want to be a better guitar player, but I do a lot of typing and have a tendency toward joint inflammation. Thus, I don't often play the guitar these days to protect the health of my fingers and wrists. And that's good, because being in pain hits all three of the negative criteria.

It may sound like I have essentially given up my hobbies, but that's not the case. I have given them up for now because I can not do them without impacting other more important parts of my life. As soon as I can alter my circumstances to enable me to start doing those things again, I certainly will. All of life is a series of choices. What do you prioritize? The choice is entirely up to you. For better or worse, the needs of my job currently dictate what happens during my free time, because I have chosen to allow it to do so. You too can choose what you wish to pursue, based on the priorities of your life. There is no need to pressure yourself over things that are ultimately secondary.

My method will not make you a super-multitasking productivity machine. It will not grant you all of the skills you want at an expert level. Heck, my method may not work for you at all. But that's OK too. If you find it doesn't make you happier, healthier, or more well rested, I wouldn't recommend it for you anyway.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scrum, and the Not Goodness Thereof

I do not have a huge amount of experience with the programming project management system known as Scrum, but what I have was not pleasant. Nor do I know any programmers that have found it pleasant, but again, minimal sample size there. It turns out I am not the only one who finds the process silly, and one of those other people wrote a post that perfectly captures what I have experienced:
"In [Giles Bowkett's] words, in it's best case scenario, Scrum's a dog-and-pony show. But that best case scenario is rare. In the much more common case, Scrum covers up the inability to recruit (or even recognize) engineering talent, which is currently one of the most valuable things in the world, with a process for managing engineers as if they were cogs in a machine, all of equal value."
I'm sure there are places out there using Scrum successfully, but I have never seen them. It seems to be a methodology using the trappings of Agile to hide that it actually comes from the fake world of scientific management. In that world, to achieve improvement, you must have The Metrics. The Metrics govern all processes. It doesn't matter if something is actually understood, it only matters that it is being Measured, and that the Measurement be Tracked.

Hmm. This turned into a bit of a rant post, so I need to look at what I can offer as a solution. In my (again, limited) experience, you get the best results when you trust your people. Of course you can't do it blindly. There must be accountability if something or someone fails to deliver, and management must be aware of and take into account individuals' interactions with other and their own desired goals. It certainly isn't the easiest path, but boy can it go gangbusters when it works. And if your team isn't capable of functioning smoothly together without a convoluted multi-process formal framework, then there are other fundamental issues that need to be solved. Is it too big? Is there a poison person? Are they being mismanaged? Is the end goal of the project unclear or shifting?

More and better minds than me, like Mr. Bowkett and Mr. Eckle above, have pondered the workings of a successful teams and successful businesses. Many trees have been felled and electrons spent in sending forth their conclusions. Yet it remains a hard problem to tackle, and like all people (and software) problems, the solutions will be at least somewhat unique every time.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

True Detective and Philosophy

Post-apocalypse stories, at least those that use the theme as more than set dressing, fall along an axis. At one end lies the ultimately positive story of life continuing after a Bad Thing happened. At the other lies the last struggling survivors and they rail, ultimately futilely, against inevitable death. In other words, optimism vs. pessimism. In different other words, existentialism vs. nihilism. I suspect that where the popular culture of the times fall into those spectra can say something about people's outlook on the world.*

HBO's recent series True Detective is not, strictly speaking, post-apocalyptic. Rather, it is heavily Southern Gothic, with the themes of mystery, decay, and dissolution twining through the cinematography and writing like wysteria covering an old tree. It does contain elements of the apocalyptic though, especially in the "revelation" sense of the word, as the main characters see the nature of their world revealed to them. And since it also draws from the classic weird story "The King in Yellow", you would not be wrong if you guessed that the revelation is not an entirely pleasant one. Rust, one of those main characters, is a self-described pessimist, in the philosophical sense rather than the colloquial one, and so it is very clear where he falls in the spectra at the start of the show. Where his arc takes him, I will not reveal here.

If you are looking for some horror viewing this autumn, you can't do much better than True Detective. And for more, and better, discussion about the philosophy behind horror and some nuggets on why nihilism can exist in pop culture, I refer you to this week's Radio Lab podcast, entitled "In the Dust of This Planet", which got me started thinking along these lines.

* Now that I have written that, I suddenly realize that which pair of philosophical struggles you more identify with might also tell you something significant about your religious beliefs, or lack thereof. But that is another topic, for someone much more educated along those lines than myself.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bookworming: Footprints in the Sand

Footprints in the Sand, Mary Jane Clark, ***
I don't have much to say about this one. It's a pretty straightforward contemporary "cozy" style mystery. Takes about a hundred pages to really get rolling, but afterward moves at a quick pace. Mystery fans will be at home here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Quote of the Moment

"A rose in a corn field is a weed."
— Mark Stewart, from assignment 14 of PBS Digital Studios's The Art Assignment

I suspect this one is going to mess with me for a while.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Robotic Naval Shipping?

Ars ran this article about research into unmanned shipping. My question is this: which will take hold first, seafaring shipping drones, aerial shipping drones, or driverless cars? My guess would be drone ships, since they have less possibilities of interaction with the general public and would therefore be more subject to pure economic forces. They are all coming eventually, but I would also guess I won't live to see any of the above in wide use.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Harvard Business School vs. the Wealth Gap

An analysis of a survey conducted by Harvard Business School on its graduates that called America's wealth gap unsustainable gives the following advice: "Harvard called on corporate leaders to help solve America's wealth gap by working to buttress the kindergarten-12th-grade education system, skills-training programs, and transportation infrastructure, among other things." There is no indication whether the 'other things' might include paying said corporate leaders less and workers more, or any other steps that might actually directly address the problem.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Bookworming: Revenant

Revenant, Kat Richardson, ***
Walking a line between the previous installment's thriller tendencies and the earlier mystery stories with a dash of travelogue thrown in, the latest book in the Greywalker series is solid, though not a return to the series high water mark. It draws heavily on characters and situations from the previous books in the series and certainly would not make a good entry point for new readers. The relationships among the characters takes the forefront this time around, and for my tastes are extremely well done. The plot wasn't exactly as solid, unfortunately. The climax in particular seemed rather arbitrary to me. Still an easy one to recommend for fans of the series.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Story About Gun Control

Nine year old girl accidentally kills gun instructor...
What a horrible tragedy.
... with an uzi.
OK, there may have been some poor decision making involved. (article)

Safety tip for you parents of young kids: teach them how to shoot using things with shoulder stocks. Or that fire non-lethal rounds. Preferably both.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Real Coming Apocalypse

One of the things that gets to me sometimes about being a programmer is the rather morally ambiguous results of extrapolating the consequences of software automation. By which I mean, am I helping to kill the economy? This presentation is a much more thorough and well put together commentary on what I'm trying to get across here.

Of Monkeys and Lawyers

The word has come down in the U.S. about whether a selfie taken by a monkey is the property of the public or the nature photographer who owned the camera. It's the public, but that's not important now. What is important is the twelve-hundred plus page report discussing U.S. Copyright Office practices. Seriously, 1200 pages. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why video over the Internet is restricted in confusing ways.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pondering the Meaning of the 'Blog, 2014

There has been something of a change of tone and content around these parts over the last couple of years. As with all such things, it relates to where things are going in my life right now. In the wake of a couple years of commuting, a subsequent move, and the associated job changes, it seems my priorities have shifted. I'm still reading the news, but I seem to be finding less and less of it interesting. Over the years, it has been link gathering that has driven posts more often than not. But these days, I'm finding much more pleasure in the frivolities of good books, TV, and games, no doubt because I am busier at work doing more difficult things than I have ever been before. That has been reflected in the posts here. I suspect that trend will continue.

In asking myself what direction I want these writings to go, I have had various answers over the years. Rarely did those answers actually come to fruition. (Frankly, bookworming may be the only one that actually took.) I have told myself that I should write about programming more, or that I should write about it less (is it actually possible for me to write about it less?). I have said the same thing to myself about personal content and link-posts and pretty much everything else I have ever played with in this space. I have wondered if I shouldn't just close it all down in favor of an offline journal.

That isn't going to happen, at least not yet. And as this blog heads toward it's tenth anniversary, and I approach my fortieth, I find that no matter how I have tried to direct things here, I always end up where I started nine years ago. The more things change, as they say, the more they stay the same. And thus it appears this space will continue to be my digital stream of consciousness.

Evidential Futility

There are certain debates which can never be won. The sides are entrenched, the topics too complicated or personal, there is not really a right answer. Pro-choice vs. pro-life, Israel vs. Palestine, vi vs. emacs. But there are also some arguments that should be rationally resolved, such as creationism vs. evolution, climate change, and green energy. And yet, the debates rage on. Politics goes the same way. All the actors do the same things over and over again, and both sides perpetually claim their ideology is right and the other will destroy America while both fail at their lofty goals. What is going on there?

Funny story... It turns out, and this is completely logical if you consider it, it turns out that the people most informed and capable of looking at evidence are also the people best equipped to rationalize their own views on a subject, and that cultural identity drives public opinion more than evidence. Thus people who identify with/as Democrats/Republicans/Bible literalists/Pastafarians/insert-ideology-you-disagree-with-here are not going to be persuaded by your evidence. Ever. Sure, there may be an exception here or there, but that's just statistics for you. In general people are going to believe what the group they identify with believes. Now what the heck do I do with that knowledge?

If I'm perfectly honest, it felt a bit revelatory when I read about the studies. In the sense that it confirmed something I had long been trying to resolve (thus making me more likely to give the story credence). I have long believed that certain debates that rage in our society are literal wastes of time. And now I have evidence (Evidence!) to back up my rationalized claim. I also have a great excuse not to engage in such debates anymore. Y'all believe what y'all are going to believe in any case, and I will do the same.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Assigning Copyright for Selfie on a Stolen Phone

Just a little conundrum from the land of copyright for you today. Once upon a time, a monkey stole a nature photographer's camera and took a bunch of pictures of himself. Today, said photographer believes that the copyright for the picture should be his. Wikipedia disagrees believing the photograph was taken by the monkey and is therefore public domain (on the grounds that the monkey can't claim copyright).

Seriously.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Back in my Day...

Five Swords, Attribution below.

One can not run across this much awesome and not post it.
[Five Swordsmen of the Kickass coloring by John-Paul Bove of Five Swords by Jake]

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Bookworming: The Te of Piglet

The Te of Piglet, Benjamin Hoff, **
Hard to read for all the wrong reasons, The Te of Piglet is a smattering of Taoist philosophy interspersed with the characters from Winnie the Pooh. Unfortunately, the two do not mix properly, the interjections often behave not as transitions but as non-sequitur. I made it through the book because the philosophy is quite interesting, but I suspect there are some better, clearer books on the subject to be found elsewhere.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Brief Comment on Dungeons & Dragons 5

I currently do not have any plans to pick up the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons that is being released starting next month. There are two reasons for this:

  1. I am not currently a part of a regular gaming group.
  2. Core set of books cost $150.
I did look over the preview Wizards of the Coast put out, and it looks to have serious potential. Hard to really judge without a monster stat block or three, but it appears to have dispensed with some of the complexity and scaling issues that plagued the recent versions. If either of those two conditions were not the case, I might be interested to see if the set would be worthy of succeeding my old D&D Rules Cyclopedia (available again in PDF) as my  preferred edition of D&D.

Over the past decade or so, the internet has supported a great deal of competition with versions of games reformulating the older, simpler versions of D&D itself as well as Pathfinder taking over the popular v3 D&D niche on the high end. Not to mention Savage Worlds, a very low cost of entry generic system,  or Fate and Apocalypse World type games with their more storytelling style. All of these are available in PDF for very low costs, and even if you prefer the real books, there is a great deal of play to be had for far less than $150. I suspect I am not alone, and Wizards is taking a pretty big risk re-launching their flagship at such a premium price.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bookworming: Red Storm Rising

Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy, ***
Back in the late 80s when this book came out, it was deemed a chillingly plausible scenario of how World War III might play out with the conventional weaponry of the era. Times have changed, I have grown up (a little), and now it's easy to see the Cold War bigotry, the fetishization of technology, and, as one might expect of military fiction of that day, its complete failure of the Bechdel test. Co-author Larry Bond, uncredited on the jacket, was best known at the time for his Harpoon naval warfare game. As such, the action is largely in the air and at sea. It is often called a techno-thriller for a reason: this is not a novel about people, it's a narrative look at the tools of war and the strategies used to employ them. The characters are mere names who's personal stories go from non-existent to wholly subservient to the grand sweep of the war, and pretty much nowhere else. Know what you are getting into with this book: it's military strategy fiction, all the way down.

With all that said... I love it. For better than 25 years it has remained one of my favorite "beach book" reads. It's a summer blockbuster of a novel, shot throughout with tension punctuated with action scenes. I am giving it three stars here because it will absolutely not be for everyone. For fans of speculative military fiction or grand strategy however, it's an easy one to recommend.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Quote of the Moment

"If I were to give up Sarcasm, that would leave interpretive dance as my only means of communication."
—Bill Murry via Twitter

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Apocalypse Watch: Remember Max?

"My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land. But most of all, I remember The Road Warrior. The man we called "Max".
— Narrator, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

Entertainment Weekly, The Apocalypse Issue cover


If this keeps up, I'm going to have to add a new tag to the list.

Aereo Fallout, Well That Didn't Take Long

"In  Aereo's Wake Fox targets Dish's TV streaming service"

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Grist for the Post-Apocalypse Mill

Ebola outbreaks and antibiotic resistant disease, wars and revolutions, fear of terrorists... is it any wonder why both super-hero and apocalyptic media is going strong right now? So what makes for a good apocalypse? It's an interesting question pondered in the video below, in between the parts decrying the overuse of zombies. I can't really disagree with that either, but I'm mostly linking it for the thoughts on the end of the world stories. Anyway, here's Dodger with "How To End The World".


The Incremental Approach and Aero

Back in the late 90s when the mp3 format became popular for music listening, I spent some time pondering where the line of illegality was for sharing such files. Before I get into this, please note it was a thought exercise by someone who is very, very not a lawyer.

So me listening to a CD I bought is legal.
Me listening to a CD that I borrowed from a friend is legal.
My friend and I listening to the CD together is legal.
Me ripping a CD onto my computer is legal (there is no data protection on the disk, so it doesn't fall under DMCA protection).
Me listening to a CD I borrowed from my friend after he ripped it is likely not legal, but it's hard to say which one of us would be in violation.
We can presumably play a CD through a computer's speakers and both listen to it. However, if we both listen to an mp3 on, say a networked hard drive, even if we are still in the same room, that somehow becomes illegal.
What if only one of us listens at a time? What if we aren't in the same room? What if we are neighbors listening in different houses? The point is, once you introduce a network connection into the distribution of data, it seems the copyright question goes haywire, even if there are limits on who can access when.

Which brings us back to 2014 and the case of ABC vs. Aereo. Aereo's business was renting an antenna and a DVR to subscribers, one antenna per subscription. Their customers could then access their account to set up when and what channel to record and play back any recordings on their various internet connected devices or watch live. Now it is perfectly legal for me to set up a DVR in my home and record over-the-air broadcasts for later viewing. In 2008 it was established that the so-called "cloud DVR" is also legal. But the Supreme Court has now ruled that Aereo is performing the same function as a cable company and thus subject to the same copyright restrictions as cable companies. And they explicitly state that the differences in how the broadcasts are delivered (e.g. 1 antenna per customer vs. cable's multi-cast to all their customers) do not make a difference.

Aereo was splitting the hair pretty fine in following the letter of the law, and they succeeded all the way up to the high court. But with this reversal, the question now turns to what the effect will be on services that duplicate other kinds of potentially copyrighted data across the internet. What does it mean if one were to put an e-book into Dropbox or a cloud backup service to then access from multiple computers/devices? Is that really different from Aereo's service?

In any case, I have rambled too long here about something better summarized by real journalists (see the article linked above and this further analysis), but it highlights how the rapid rise of networked computers poses a problem to a slowly evolving society. Frameworks like the legal system, the economy, and the government are having to adjust to a more complex and technological reality. And sometimes the answers just aren't going to come easily.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bookworming: Skin Game

Skin Game, Jim Butcher, *****
Hey, a new Dresden Files novel! Standard rules apply: don't start the series here and if the formula has worn thin for you, then don't bother. Speaking of the formula, it is in full force here. Prepare for beat up Harry followed by hurt Harry followed by too tired and hurt to do magic Harry. Even though the basic formula is in play, this one brings back some favorite villains, further illuminates some of Harry's recent changes, and for my tastes is one of the better stories of recent Dresden Files books.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Nothing to be Done

Peter Welch's wonderful Waiting for Doctor Who.

Yes, I know of the reference from which this pattern comes, but I have had conversations not unlike this.
Sometimes even with another person.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

An Ever-Rising Tide

On a lark, I sat down today and started putting together a small application using a newly downloaded Visual Studio 2013. It has been a couple of years now since I used C# regularly for work, and even then I didn't do much user interface work. After several hours of playing around, I have encountered a new syntax construction or two (lambdas and anonymous functions), a new threading model, and of course a new UI framework. Needless to say I didn't get very far with the actual application.

I can see why the changes have been made. Anonymous functions are a quicker way to work with simple functions and function composition. The new threading model (in theory) simplifies how multiple execution paths are handled. And Windows Presentation Foundation brings a new method of creating user interfaces that is (again, in theory) simpler and provides wider platform support than WinForms. And yet, had I used the older ways, which are still available, I would have gotten much farther along the path of actually creating something that worked.

Of course, that wasn't really the point. My real purpose in diving into the new libraries was to uncover exactly the kinds of things I found. Keeping up with the ideas in programming is possible, but the ideas do not get you anywhere. Just like with products, it's the implementation that counts. Microsoft had tablet computers for years before Apple created an iPad, for example. And yet, there is no best implementation, one has to experiment to find out what works and what does not. Every attempt gives you more information, informing the next attempt, even those that lead off into the weeds.

But boy can the process be wearying. Every language has it's own way of doing things. Every library its own interface. Every code base its conventions. And they are always changing. And yet, those changes bring new viewpoints, new functionality, and new ideas with them. Without that there would not have been the amazing rate of change in the actual things the technology enables. As a programmer, I struggle to keep up with even the big picture of the constantly accruing knowledge in the field. I wonder what it will mean for my career as the years roll on. I question whether it is even worth all the bother and stress. But as someone who wants to see technology improve all our futures, I know the pace of change is the price that must be paid to continue the remarkable improvements in what software is capable of.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Quote of the Moment

"In effect, financial markets are pushing companies to run a marathon... by having them sprint every lap."
"High frequency trading is a different phenomenon from the increasing focus on short term returns by human investors. But they're borne from a similar mindset: one in which financial returns are the priority, independent of whether they're associated with something innovative or useful in the real world."
"The final destination? It will enter a world entirely of its own — a world in which it is fighting to capture value that is completely independent of whether any is created in the first place."
– James Allworth, "High Frequency Trading and Finance's Race to Irrelevance", Harvard Business Review

Yes, I've been harping on the idea that "the market" optimizes for the wrong thing for a while now.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Culture, Counter Culture, Pop Culture

We start off tonight with the sad news of another amazing part of the World War II story passing completely into history. Chester Nez, the last of the Navajo Code Talkers has died. The tale of the "unbreakable" code and the people who enabled it remains a fascinating one. Given the climate of jingoism and racism that dominated at the time, it highlights just how important other cultures can be, and that speaking another language does not mean one isn't a patriot.

Meanwhile, some in Thailand are raising the ire of the military rulers by quietly raising the sign used in the Hunger Games movies. In addition to this, some are protesting by reading 1984 in public places. Naturally there has been criticism in the media over it, one story in particular which I will not grace with a link belittles the use of a symbol from a movie and book marketed to teenagers. As for me, I think one finds symbology where one needs to. And if The Hunger Games's fictional rallying cry for freedom has enough visibility to be used in the real world for the same message, I don't see a problem with that.

And finally more sad news, as two girls use the internet horror creation Slenderman as justification for a murder attempt. There may be nothing more here than a lesson in the need to supervise and teach children. Then again Slendy may become the next poster-thing in the perpetual comics/television/video games/internet scapegoating crusade to oversimplify the real issues of violence in the US. In either case, it is an illustration of just how very public the public consciousness has become in the networked age.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Bookworming: The Color of Magic

The Color of Magic, Terry Pratchett, ***
First in the now expansive Diskworld series, The Color of Magic is a parody of the fantasy genre, and your reaction to it will probably depend on how much you are familiar with the tropes of sword and sorcery and how much you like the dry humor the book leans on. For me at least, this was not a laugh-out-loud kind of book, rather more of a wry grin. In some sense, I was a bit let down in that I was expecting funny rather than witty. That said, it wasn't the humor that impressed me about the book. The world-building in The Color of Magic has a hefty amount of verisimilitude, and parody though it is, it is also a magnificent example of the fantasy milieu form. Comparisons to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are not misplaced. It even shares Hitchhiker's greatest weakness: there is no story here. It is an almost random tromp through an imaginary world, and nothing deeper than that. Thankfully the imaginary world is bursting with personality, and that is the real reason I enjoyed the book. As for the parody, yes it is good. Even the ending is a send-up of the classic cliffhanger. It misses the four-star mark by a bit for me, but I suspect I will continue with the series at some point.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Quote of the Moment

"Got into computers because I enjoyed talking to machines instead of people. Now computers all about talking to people. This is some bullshit" [sic]
–Jeff Atwood, tweet on May 30, 2014

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Despairing Commentary on Computer Security

Everything is Broken by Quinn Norton tells the tail of why computer security seems quite impossible very well. As much as I love C, its time should have passed long ago. It's why I pull for languages like Go, Rust, and Dart to help manage some of the complexity. But it's not just the languages. If you want to write anything with a graphical interface that uses native widgets, you're stuck in a flavor of C. If you want high speed graphics, the libraries are all for a flavor of C. It's not just the systems we have created that need an overhaul, its the systems of tools we use to create those systems, and the systems that they are built upon. And all of that without mentioning the time or expense factor. So, yes, I agree that we have a long way to go, but I doubt I will be in the industry long enough to witness the sea change. And I'm certainly not in any position to help.

I'll also throw in The Internet is Burning by Jon Evans as a nice follow-up to Everything is Broken.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bookworming: Welcome to Mars

Welcome to Mars, Ken Hollings, **
Well, this is an odd duck. It is a book about the influence of science and politics on the popular culture of the late 1940s and the 1950s. Or perhaps it's the other way around. Structured by time rather than a narrative, Hollings weaves threads throughout from the planned suburbs of the Levittowns through B-movie science fiction, from the post-WWII think-tank of the RAND Corporation to the rise of LSD, into a view of history that reads more like conspiracy theory. It shares this format with the radio program of the same name. Unfortunately what works for a flowing structure on the radio makes for an extremely dense and sometimes difficult to follow read. So in spite of taking a unique view of the history of a fascinating time period in America, I find I can't quite recommend this one. That said, I wholeheartedly recommend the aforementioned radio show (available on iTunes and via archive.org), which shares the density of the book but is a much better fit for the structure.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Meditations Over the Shredder

Today in an effort to do something productive while staying off of a broken toe that just doesn't want to heal quickly, I finally cleaned out my files. Normally, I do this right after I have filed my taxes, shifting the previous year's important records into my archive, and shredding all the cruft and things older than I need to keep around. This year I am rather late in doing it, and had an additional large packet of now-worthless paperwork in the form of the documents surrounding the purchase of my first home some thirteen years ago, plus paperwork from the job changes I have had over the past two and a half years.

In all of that paperwork, a stack that ran about four inches tall this time, there were only a couple of documents that had any value, be it as a record or as a sentiment. Most of it was receipts, bills, and a whole bunch of legalese. I was struck in looking at them how odd it is to see chunks of your life essentially expressed as numbers. Grocery, book, and hardware store receipts, bank statements, insurance forms, a HUD statement. Dozens of bits and pieces describing my interaction with the world around me, pretty much entirely based on the moving of money.

One of the characters in William Gibson's novel Idoru was a person skilled at sifting through the computer network and learning things about people by the trail of data they left behind. It's something I have quoted before, and the rise of Big Data and intense digital tracking of both consumers and citizens in the name of better serving them remains a subject in need of serious exploration. What does the pile of papers say about me?

Well, obviously they give a pretty good picture of my financial life, my entertainment habits, and the causes I care enough about to give money to. They show some of the changes that have occurred in my life over the past couple years: being laid off, job hunting, getting a new job and commuting, and finally moving away from the place I called home for my entire life. You could say that's a pretty complete look at me. I certainly wouldn't want just anyone seeing that stuff, hence the shredding. But I also find it interesting to consider what the stack of papers doesn't say about me.

Those papers don't tell you much about what I do for a living, and not much about whether I'm any good at it. They don't show how I interact with my coworkers or friends (although I suppose there's facebook and linkedin for that). It doesn't have the drawing of a tree I did that was terrible right up to the point where I had done enough work for it to suddenly come together and not be terrible. It doesn't show the funeral of an uncle I attended or the one for another uncle I missed because of work. It doesn't show how terrible I am on a blind date, or how much better I feel when laughing.

Numbers can automate. Numbers can simulate. But numbers can't feel. And as someone who slings numbers professionally, it's something I will try to remember. Who I am is largely determined by how I interact with the world. While much of that interaction can be quantified, seeing a beautiful sunset, or offering a smile, doesn't come with a receipt. If it did, I'd want to have many more boxes of files.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

When Quotation Marks Are Not Quotation Marks

Today at the end of an extra long work day, I caught up with a colleague who, being new to the system we are working on, was stuck trying to get something to work. So I joined in to see what I could see. The particular task we were looking at, while relatively easy, can be a bit tricky due to setup and input sensitivity. First, the "check the wires" test: make sure all the input files are in the right places. Check. Second, make sure the environment is pointed to the right place. Check. Third, hunt for typos. Nothing immediately visible. OK, all the easy things look covered, break down the problem and test individual pieces. Doing that narrowed it down to one line of input. A line that was almost identical to another working one and had nothing visible wrong with it. And this is where my reason shut down an my experience kicked in.

Rather than scratching my head over why the line wasn't working, I copied the line that was and made the few minor alterations that made it look identical to the non-functioning line and removed the non-functioning line. Run the test again, and viola it worked.

*Sigh* And this is the victory and defeat of a programmer summed up. I immediately got a surge of pride, that yes, I have learned things in my thirteen years as a professional bit-slinger. And then came the wry smile, because most of what I have learned falls into the category of expecting the stupidest, most impossible things to be pretty common, actually.

So what was going on with my co-worker's problem? Programs are very sensitive to changes in their data. Computers don't understand intent, they just see numbers. And sometimes the data has numbers in it you can't see. Programmers favor particular kinds of fonts for this very reason. My personal test for a good font goes like this: is it mono-space (every character takes up the same amount of space, so things line up both vertically and horizontally, giving essentially a grid of text) and can you tell the differences between these characters in a quick glance: Il1| and oO0Q. A good font helps with these tiny errors, but there are more lurking. White-space characters like tabs and spaces may look the same in an editor, but cause a program to behave differently. (I'm looking at you make.) Control characters and other "non-printable" characters, such as carriage return, line feed, null, bell, and a host of others may be hiding in the data, completely invisible to normal viewing.

My current favorite is one that the web and related technologies have made more and more common: when is a quotation mark not a quotation mark? See if you can spot this one side-by-side: " vs. ”. Seems like the same thing, doesn't it. Yeah, one is fancier looking than the other, but they are both quotation marks. Just not the same quotation mark. The one on the left is known in HTML as " and  it corresponds to the number 34 in ASCII code. The one on the right in HTML is ” and it isn't in the standard ASCII code at all. So if the program is looking for one, but the other is used instead, whoops, it doesn't work.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Some Data Cap Math

A Comcast executive VP stated today that he expects data caps, excuse me, metered billing, to be in place for all of their customers within five years. Since all the major cable companies have been trialing data caps for years, it is a safe bet that they are coming, even if you don't believe that the major broadband providers are acting as a cartel. So what does that mean for the average user? That will depend on the cap size. Let us work out some examples.

As we have learned from all the disputes over Netflix lately, the largest use of bandwidth is likely to be video. A quick look at a popular bittorrent site gives a reasonable estimate of what a streaming TV show might require:
1 hour of standard definition video (480p): ~0.350 GB
1 hour of in high definition video (720p): ~1-2 GB
1 hour of in high definition video (1080p): ~2-3 GB
5 minutes of YouTube video at 360p: ~0.015-0.02 GB
5 minutes of YouTube video at 720p: ~0.5 GB

Let's assume a TV series runs 22 episodes (typical in the U.S.). If you prefer to watch TV in HD (and everyone does), it seems reasonable to guess it would take 250 GB for a single season. Of a single show. Comcast currently has 300 GB caps in areas where they are testing the policy. Time Warner Cable has tested caps as low as 30 GB.

Comcast advertises $40 per month internet on their main web page, but if you click through to the fine print you find their actual rate once past the new customer promotion period runs, assuming the inevitable fees, closer to $70 per month. 300 GB at $70 gives a price of about 23 cents per GB. Once the cap kicks in the charges become $10 for 50 GB or 20 cents per GB. Four HD TV shows, less than one a day for a given week, would put you around 1000 GB, which would cost $210.

What conclusions do I draw from this? I think it's pretty clear these caps are designed to punish people that get TV via the Internet rather than purchasing cable TV. In fact, if the caps go into effect is has the magical effect of making cable TV look like a bargain (or a good antenna worth its weight in Google shares). I don't think there is any question that revenue is the goal with the caps, and if they have the side effect of killing Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Apple, and other competitors, I doubt Comcast will shed any tears.

The Internet became popular by leveraging the common-carrier-regulated telephone lines and a policy of all-you-can-download for a flat rate. Altering this model will inevitably alter the way it is used. And that spells bad news for any service that requires large amounts of data, be it Steam games for your PC, the aforementioned video streaming services, or any number of other things the companies don't care about because it doesn't affect the 98% of their customers that would not be billed overages. How will it affect freelance software developers who depend on transferring code and other assets across the internet for their livings and don't have a giant corporation to pay the inevitable, and inevitably expensive business rates for true unlimited bandwidth? What about companies offering "cloud" backup services? Streaming music? Will it constrain future forms of social media? It looks like we might find out.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Watching the Watchers: The American Dream vs. The New Aristocracy

No matter where on the political spectrum you fall, it's hard to deny the undercurrent of apathy or perhaps even disillusionment in some sectors of American society. It stands at odds with the classic version of The American Dream: work hard enough and you can accomplish anything. We are now in a world where statistics, Republican opinion, and Democratic opinion all say The American Dream is a lie. What the heck happened?

Since the subprime mortgage recession, a stunning event in which nothing whatsoever physically changed yet somehow the economy was sent into a tailspin for years, it has become increasingly clear that the fate of most of our jobs are in the hands of others. Or worse, their high-frequency-trading computers. The quest to quantify the economy and in turn shuffle all the numbers so that money can be used to create money managed to destabilized even the intrinsic value of real estate. The economy has always been a confidence game, but suddenly those we trusted as bankers were exposed as grifters. Add in small to no consequences for the people responsible for the disaster, and you can see where some people might be inclined to believe the game is rigged.

That is how I try to explain it. A more eloquent description comes from a writer I've been quoting quite often around here lately, J. Michael Straczynski, in his post The Rules of the New Aristocracy. I found it to be a very illustrative read.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

An Epic Programming Rant

Just a few days after I spent a couple hours chasing down an issue that once again came down to a single letter not being capitalized (about which perhaps more later), I encounter this most sublimely magnificent programmer's rant from Peter Welsh. A tip of the hat and a raised glass to you, brother Welsh!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Oh Lord, the Puns

It's official, I broke my toe, but that's not why I'm writing. I'm writing because the name of the doctor that confirmed it for me is Lord. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to preserve the pretense that I am a normal, businesslike, adult type person when confronted with DR. LORD?

"How do you feel today?" "Good, Lord."

I want Dr. Lord to have a mountain house he calls Heaven, because I dearly want to believe his receptionist has told someone, "I'm sorry, Dr. Lord has ascended to Heaven for the weekend."

"Dr. Lord, do you ever hire a Morgan Freeman impersonator to meet new patients, just to mess with them?" (Older generations may substitute George Burns for this joke.)

"Who lives up there?" "Oh, that's the Lords' house." "Huh, it doesn't look like a church."

If Dr. Lord was old fashioned British gentry, he could be Lord Lord of Lord Manor.

I could do this all day.  It's possible I already did.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bookworming: Shadowmarch

Shadowmarch, Tad Williams, **
I want to like this book, I really do. Williams writes well and his worlds are well imagined, but this first-in-a-series book simply fails to be a self-contained story. Of the three main plot threads, only one reaches any kind of conclusion, and that conclusion is rushed at the very end of a very long book. Even a sudden plot explaining monologue from a previously-off-stage antagonist admits that the motivation for the triggering event of the plot thread is not clear. The other two threads have no attempt at closure. One even ends exactly in the same state it began. There may have been a time in my life where I would tolerate multi-thousand page journeys without any sense of progress or motivation, but those days are long gone.

Well written, but plodding of pace and unsatisfying of ending, I think it best to present Shadowmarch with a recommendation to read Williams's The Dragonbone Chair instead.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "Objects in Motion" teleplay by J. Michael Straczynski (story by Straczynski and Harlan Ellison)
  • "Do you mind if I talk to you?" "You'll forgive the accommodations?" "It's a cell. I've gotten used to them."
  • "We are all the sum of our tears. Too little and the ground is not fertile and nothing can grow there. Too much and the best us is washed away."
  • "They couldn't kill us with bullets, so they're drowning us in red tape. Frankly, I preferred the bullets. At least there I could shoot back."
  • "Coming?" "Now?" "Now is all we have."

From Babylon 5 "Objects at Rest" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Stand by to bring her about, let's take one last look at the place."
  • [Sheridan's message to his child.]

From Babylon 5 "Sleeping in Light" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Just a little further to go. Time enough."
  • "Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going?"
  • "There's so much I still don't understand." "As it should be."
  • "Well, look at that, the sun's coming up."
  • [And naturally, the final monologue.]
And so we come at last to the end of the journey. As with such things, there are other stories to be told. The movie "In the Beginning" comes to mind as a must watch. Perhaps some day the Quotes Project will get one more entry for it. But don't hold you're breath.

Around sixteen years have passed since the end of the Babylon 5 series in 1998, and obviously the show still has a strong hold on me. I'm older and can see the flaws more clearly, both in the show and in myself. But flaws are just another facet to one's character. Honestly, I could ramble on for quite a while about the show's merits, philosophies, questions, and legacy, but this has gone on too long already. In the end, the words of the show, largely those of Mr. Straczynski, can speak for themselves. Obviously, I would recommend giving it a try. If you like a good epic, TV doesn't have any better that I'm aware of. It may not be to your tastes, then again you might just like it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Emotional Ones and Zeros

One of the interesting things about the purely mental job of programming is the dichotomy of feeling like a genius for actually being able to work with and modify these complex things and feeling like a dolt because I forgot a tiny detail that I've gotten correct a hundred time before. It's not the late breaking requirements, or the defect in the really complex algorithm, or the incomplete or non-existent specifications, or the unknown unknowns that really make me cranky. I've been doing it long enough that I expect such things. It's the unchecked null pointer, the unguarded arrays, and the inexorable, inevitable typo.

I expect to be sore after the climb up the mountain, but stubbing my toe on a rock at the top is just annoying.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Moment of Awe on the Anniversary of the IBM System/360

Fifty years ago, IBM released the System/360 mainframe, the low-end model of which had 4 kilobytes of main memory and ran at something less than 2,000 instructions per second. And of course they were wall-sized.

Today you can put a computer in your pocket that has a gigabyte of memory, can process a couple billion instructions per second, packs in four or more radios, proximity sensors, a compass, accelerometers, and multiple cameras capable of recording high definition video, and which can connect to both the global computer network and the telephone network.

Imagine what the next fifty years will bring.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "Movements of Fire and Shadow" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "If you run into trouble..." "I'll walk out of it. More dignified that way."

From Babylon 5 "The Fall of Centauri Prime" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "I have been silly. I have been quiet when I should have spoken. I have been foolish. And I have wasted far too much time."
  • "Isn't it strange, J'Kar: when we first met I had no power and all the choices I could ever want, and now I have all the power I could ever want and no choices at all."
  • "My people can never forgive your people, but I can forgive you."

From Babylon 5 "The Wheel of Fire" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "I've never understood that. Why does the universe give us puzzles with no answers?" "Payback maybe. Evening up the scale a little"
  • "I wonder if the right question is can God create a puzzle so difficult, a riddle so complex that even he can't solve it. What if that's us?"
  • "What part of my message did you get, we've been having trouble with the comm systems see and..." "The most important part, the part that said 'I need you.'" "And you came here just on that." "What more is there?"
  • "There is no normal life, Michael, just life."
  • "I realized it's simpler to make a statue to someone who you believe embodies all your better qualities than it is to actually improve yourself." "And this saves you from having to think." "Exactly."

Bookworming: Locke and Key, Vols. 1 & 2

Locke and Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft, Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodríguez, et. al., ****
After the brutal murder of a teacher, his family moves back to his ancestral home to try and rebuild their lives. And then things start getting weird. Welcome to Lovecraft focuses the story on the three grieving children and sets up the mystery of Key House. Solid writing and amazing artwork join together to make an intriguing introduction to one of the more acclaimed comic series in recent memory. This is certainly not a comic for kids or the squeamish, but horror fans will find it a gruesome and creepy read. In spite of being an introduction to an extended series, there is a self-contained story here, though it is one that leaves as many or more questions open as it wraps up.

Locke and Key, Vol. 2: Head Games, Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodríguez, et. al., ****
Head Games continues the horror story of three grieving children and the mystical keys of Key House. This volume drops much of the splatter found in the first volume and replaces it with a double helping of creepy. As before, solid writing and stunning artwork carry this one forward.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "Meditations on the Abyss" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "He knows me, but he also loves me, and sometimes the one gets in the way of the other."
  • "You have given me back my sight, the least I can do in return is share a little of my confusion."
  • "It is not necessary to know, it is only necessary to try."
  • "Once you look in the mirror and see just how foolish we can be, laughter is inevitable. And from laughter comes wisdom."
  • [G'Kar's discussion on the nature of truth and god.]

From Babylon 5 "Darkness Ascending" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "I have been working up a good mad all day, and I am not about to let you undercut it by agreeing with me."

From Babylon 5 "And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder"
  • "The thing about losing one eye is that it makes you look deeply into the eyes of another. I found in yours all the thanks I will ever require, in this life or in any other."
  • "If you want to hurt me, there's a cleaner and faster way of doing it. Hell, you might even think about it for yourself. It's a hell of a lot more efficient than the road you're on, and you'll take fewer people with you when you go."
  • [What the candle stands for.]

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "The Ragged Edge" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Who knew the Presidency was fifty percent panic and fifty percent paperwork."

From Babylon 5 "The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "It must be nice, someone who will wait for you, someone who will love you..." "And if my wife ever found out about her..."
  • "Yeah, they told me, but I never let the facts get in the way of a good grudge."
  • "You're an optimist. Thank you, I'd almost forgotten what one of your kind looked like."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Quote of the Moment

"Patience is all you need, that and the courage it takes just to be."
—Howling Bells, "Setting Sun"

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "Secrets of the Soul" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "No tyranny has ever really lasted. No government based on violence has endured. Sooner or later they all fall."
  • "Stop smiling." "Then go away, if you're here I'm afraid I can't help myself."

From Babylon 5 "Day of the Dead" written by Neil Gaiman
  • "Oh, this is a moment you can tell your children about Captain." "I'll get on to having some right away."
  • "You know, the reports of my death, they weren't even exaggerated a little bit."
  • "Looking back on it though, I think I just tried to make people happy."
  • "The real comedy all happens in the senate."

From Babylon 5 "In the Kingdom of the Blind" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "There is no one obvious to blame." "Which means they will blame each other, randomly."
  • "He cultivated sobriety as his only vice, a break with conventional accepted behavior."
  • "Besides, everyone knows that the true source of pain is neither the hand nor the heart. It is the mouth."
  • "Beautiful night isn't it, as nights go. And they go so quickly now."

From Babylon 5 "A Tragedy of Telepaths" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Sensible, wise, who thought it up for you?"
  • "Every great fall begins with a single mistake. This is yours."

From Babylon 5 "Phoenix Rising" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "There's only one thing more dangerous than Mr. Garibaldi when he's loud: it's when he's dead silent."
  • "On a scale of one to ten, how stupid do you think I am anyway?"

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Brightshadow Memos: Exorcism

[OK folks, some people may find this offensive, but as usual, I am merely taking some of the weirdness around us and deconstructing it into something that can be made light of. Note the tag on the post. Also note that the news stories linked herein are actually quite fascinating, particularly the cultural reactions in Mexico. There is a deeper, more human, actually real subject to be delved into here, if one so desires, but that is in no way the intent of this post.]

Sir, I have collated the information you requested on the subject of exorcism, and I must say that the official position of Project Brightshadow remains indeterminate. The idea of subtle entities invading or possessing humans is a fairly pervasive myth, which tends to give it some credence. However, there are quite a few… shall we say, more grounded reasons why such behaviors occur. Still, Christianity remains a huge influence around the world, and there is plenty of support for exorcism in the Bible. Christianity also has a way of absorbing older traditions into it, which can mask, or reveal, older traditions and legends.

The Catholic church revised the rite of exorcism to include the possibility mental illness in 1999, but retains the strict hierarchical requirements of its traditions. Protestant exorcism is as splintered as the various sects, though it tends to be flavored by the same focuses that differentiate the sects from one another. And of course, many of the powers that can be granted via demonic possession can also be granted through divine favor, making the discernment of demons and angels subject to the eye of the beholder.

Economic woes, traditionalism, and isolationism can all contribute to greater belief in, or perhaps greater awareness of, the supernatural. As such, recent years have seen the public view of exorcism and exorcists to rise again. Whether it is caused by cultural impact, such as the brutal drug cartel violence in Mexico, or simple capitalistic business opportunities, or indeed an actual rise in demonic activity likely varies on a case by case basis. And this without even touching on non-Christian beliefs.

One thing is certain, in our post-modern, post-Buffy age, a trio of pretty, young, female exorcists can only exist so long before reality TV comes knocking. As usual, we will continue to collect intelligence as we can.

If you are in a horror game, the subject of exorcism is bound to come up at some point, and it does provide a myriad of tropes to follow, twist, and subvert to keep things interesting. As with all real-life things, and horror in general for that matter, know your group before you go there. Religion can be touchy, and the Adversary doubly so. That said, here are a few things to start your creative juices flowing should you want your group to encounter an exorcist NPC.
  1. The exorcist is a charlatan and knows it. If the PCs are ghost or demon busters, this character may follow them around to figure out how they pull off such convincing cons. And if he/she accidentally interferes in that rather important containment ritual…
  2. The exorcist is a charlatan who knows it, but believes he/she is genuinely helping the rubes. Call 'em a professional placebo. This character makes a good likely revenge target, both for relatives of someone who was ripped off and for any demons insulted by the fake exorcism attempt.
  3. The exorcist is a charlatan who does not know it. Can the PCs convince them they aren't helping, and may in fact be making things worse? What happens when he/she encounters a real spirit/demon?
  4. The exorcist is genuine. The character can save the PC's bacon and become a valuable mentor/aid, or could be an antagonist who believes the PCs are interfering in God's work.
  5. The exorcist is genuine but does not know it. Fighting demons tends to make cranky, powerful, supernatural enemies. If a con-artist out to make a buck happens to be using the real/correct rituals to foster a sense of authenticity, they may be getting themselves into situation where they will need protection or rescuing.
  6. The exorcist is genuine but does not believe it. Perhaps he/she is the one key to dispelling a certain malignant entity, and is thus a high-priority target who must be protected through a gauntlet of horror long enough to be convinced or for their power to be triggered.
  7. The exorcist is genuine and wants nothing to do with it. Perhaps freaked out by a prior encounter, he/she must be convinced they can do good by exercising their power once again.
  8. The exorcist is working for the enemy. Maybe the ritual is inverted, opening the victim up to possession. Maybe the cultist is identifying 'marginals' who can be influenced and offering a better life, with just a very minor catch. This one is particularly applicable for evil forces of the long-game or corporatized bent (such as Wolfram & Hart from TV's Angel).

Skeletor is Love?

Motivational quotes using image macros are no uncommon on the internet, unless perhaps they feature iconic 80's cartoon villain Skeletor. Yeah, it's niche. Also hilarious.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "Learning Curve" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "A challenge is to stand alone, unarmed, prepared to die. I would hardly say sitting and thinking is a challenge." "True, you do seem to have the sitting part down to an art, so I suppose there is hope. As for thinking, well, uh, let's leave that for the advanced classes. We shouldn't expect too much of you at once."
  • "You're a source of constant annoyance to me Turval, but only because you're right more often than you're wrong."
  • "You sure this is a good idea?" "I'll let you know if I survive it."
  • "You see, we create the meaning in our lives. It does not exist independently."
  • "At the end, Captain, we all stand alone."

From Babylon 5 "Strange Relations" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "If there was a straight answer buried in there somewhere, I sure as hell didn't see it."
  • "How am I doing so far?" "Annoyingly logical." "Thank you." "It wasn't a compliment."
  • "I'm caught in a web of my own good intentions."
  • "You don't just walk into somebody's office and start a fight. Unless invited to do so."
  • "Compassion is a lovely thing, taken in moderation."
  • "What the hell is your problem?" "For starters, I don't know you, therefore I don't trust you." "The world is full of people you don't know." "I worry about that all the time."
  • "There's nothing more appealing than knowing someone is willing to lay down their life for you." "And nothing more dangerous."
  • "All right, all right Delenn, but mark my word, this is going to be trouble." "Everything of value is, Londo."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "A View from the Gallery" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Though cruel and capricious, bringing us into a world that fears and and hates us, nature did not leave us entirely without protection."
  • "The universe hates me, you know."
  • "I spent my years in one shelter after another, but sooner or later I was able to leave the shelter and walk out into the daylight. You do not have that luxury. You carry your shelter with you every day. You did not grow up, you grew old."
  • "So, how long you figure they've been married?"
  • "Man, did you see that smile? It's like the sun coming out from behind a cloud."
  • "My mother used to tell me, 'God knows the age of every tree and the color of every flower, and He knows just how wide your shoulders are. And he'll never give you anything to carry that's bigger than you can handle.'" "Then maybe that's what this whole place is about. Maybe that's what you have to do to get by in a place like this." "What's that?" "Grow bigger shoulders."
  • "Yeah, typical. They call all the shots, they get all the glory, we clean up all the mess." "Well, maybe not all the mess."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • You have that vacant look in your eyes that says, "hold my head to your ear, you'll hear the sea".
  • "He must follow the calling of his heart." "And if he's not, if he's just running away to avoid the situation here?" "The universe will teach him what he needs to know."
  • "Perhaps it's better if I die now, if only to, to spite fate."
  • "There's a time for charity and a time for truth. You're almost out of both."
  • "Prophecy is a guess that comes true. When it doesn't, it's a metaphor."
  • "It was not my fault! I said..." "You said nothing!"
  • "Whether it was me or my world, whether it was a total stranger or your worst enemy, you were a witness! It doesn't matter if they'd stopped! It doesn't matter if they'd listened! You had an obligation to speak out!"
  • "No Vir, the universe is an evil place, but at least it seems to have a sense of humor about the whole thing."

From Babylon 5 "The Paragon of Animals" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Come all the way out here just to depress me? "Naw, I can do that any time."
  • "I'm not big on guns either, but if everyone else has 'em, I want to make sure I can get my hands on the biggest one I can."
  • "If you're going to make a point, why not make it so no one misses it."
  • "Dukhat once told me, 'If you can create sufficient fear in your enemies, you may not have to fight them. Always remember that terror is also a form of communication.'"
  • [The intro to the Declaration of Principles.]

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "No Compromises" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "You're a very strange man, even for a human." "Why thank you."
  • "The bottom line is: wherever you are is home enough for me."
  • "I'm flattered. Also terrified. This is a great responsibility."
  • "That's a tall order." "Perhaps, but where is it written that all our dreams must be small ones?"
  • "You want to be President?" "Yes." "Put your hand on the book and say, 'I do'." "I do." "Fine, done, let's eat."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Quote of the Moment

"These safety nets didn't arise out of a power grab by progressives. They arose out of a need that was not being met by free market capitalism."
—John Stewart, The Daily Show, March 5, 2014

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bookworming: The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler, ***
I must get two things out of the way before going into the review. First, the usual caveat for a book born out of the late-30's pulps: some content may be considered offensive in our current culture. Second, I love the 1946 movie adaptation staring Humphrey Bogart enough that I can't read Philip Marlowe's dialog in any other voice.

Really, there isn't much I can say that hasn't already been said. Chandler's first novel is famous for its convoluted (some would say incomplete) plot, for its hard boiled main character, and some very sharp phrase turning. As for me, I found some real spark there, especially in the character writing and descriptions, but if I'm fair (and it's hard to be), things are a little uneven. It's considered a classic for a reason, but it's just below four-star territory. Though with this as a starting point, I do expect there will be more Chandler reading in my future.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "Rising Star" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "We are developing a rather strange relationship, I think. At times, I find I rather enjoy it."
  • "I find it amazing that you think that threats still mean anything to me."
  • "It's just that I'm so rarely in the presence of living history. It, it thins the atmosphere, makes you giddy. You realize that you are quite mad for even considering this." "Perhaps."
  • "I hope you have all brought a change of underwear. You will need it after you read this."
  • "Half of Earthforce wants to give you a kiss on the cheek and the medal of honor. The other half want you taken out and shot. As a politician you learn how to compromise, which by all rights means I should give you the medal of honor then have you shot."
  • "So morally, I was right, but politically, I'm inconvenient." "Inconvenient doesn't even begin to cover it."
  • "Don't make the mistake of assuming this is a conversation."
  • "The bitch of it is, you probably did the right thing."
  • "As long as we speak his name, he will always be a part of us."
  • "Now the time I spent on Babylon 5 I learned about choices, and consequences, and responsibility. I learned that we all have choices, even when we don't recognize them, and that those choices have consequences, not just for ourselves, but for others. We must assume responsibility for those consequences."
  • "Peace is a concept. If I'm going to sell this to my generals and the public, I'm going to need something a little more tangible."
  • "Well, there'll be plenty of time for stories later." "All the time in the world."
  • "I need to decide where my heart belongs before the rest of me can follow."
  • "You do not make history, you can only hope to survive it."
  • "It was the end of one chapter, and the beginning of another. The next twenty years would see great changes, great joy, and great sorrow. The Telepath War. The Drakh War. The new Alliance would waver and crack, but in the end it would hold. Because what is built endures, and what is loved endures. And Babylon 5, Babylon 5 endures."

From Babylon 5 "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars"
  • "But there's a time and a place for everything, and this is the time and this is definitely the place for one hell of a party."
  • "Our marriage ceremonies are solemn, sober moments of reflection. Also regret, disagreement, argument, and mutual recrimination. Once you know that it can not get any worse, you can relax and enjoy the marriage. But to start with something like this, no it is a very bad sign for the future. ... Perhaps it is something I said." "Perhaps it is everything you say."
  • "You came all this way just to say that?" "You came just as far to say less."
  • "You do not wish to know anything. You wish only to speak. That which you know, you ignore, because it is inconvenient. That which you do not know, you invent. But none of that matters, except that he was a good man. A kind man, who cared about the world even when the world cared nothing for him."
  • "The purpose of this simulation is to provide reverse correct infospeak as support for current changes in Earth policy."
  • "No point in having a conversation with someone who doesn't really exist."
  • "Now, what suggestions do you have?" "Well, I suggest you put your head between your legs and you kiss your ass goodbye."
  • "Yes, I've read Job brother Alwin. It is really not helping."
  • "Faith sustains us in the hour when reason tells us that we can not continue, that the whole of our lives is without meaning." "Then why were we born able to reason if reason's useless." "Not useless, but it's also not enough. Faith and reason are the shoes on your feet. You can travel further with both than with just one."
  • "Give him another twenty years, he'll be fine."
  • "This is how the world ends, swallowed in fire but not in darkness."
  • "We did what we did because it was right, not to be remembered. History will attend to itself. It always does."
[Because of the travails of syndication, these two episodes have the feel of being essentially a coda for the show. After being cancelled at the end of its fourth season, cable network TNT resurrected it to complete the five year run. However, the fulfillment of the main plot arc leaves the fifth season functioning as something of an extended denouement. In some other re-watches, I'll admit to having skipped from here to the final episode, which originally was produced to end the fourth season. But I am being completest in this viewing, so onward we go through to the end. Also, that bit about shoes is my second favorite quote from the series, second only to 'faith manages'.]

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "Endgame" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "You are to forget that these people were once friends, associates, and fellow officers. They are targets to be destroyed. Nothing more, nothing less."
  • "These are your sons, your daughters whose loyalties have never wavered, whose beliefs in this alliance has forced us to take extraordinary means! For justice, for peace, for the future, we have come home!"
  • "Delenn, we need you." "We are there."

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Body Heat Powered Flashlight

It has been a long time since I saw something really cool come out of green tech. LED bulbs have reached the market and are quite nice, if still expensive. Solar improvements remain in the realm of research for the most part, but deployment continues around the world. And batteries... batteries still suck.

Luckily one high school student, in an attempt to help out a friend who did not have electricity, put together a thermoelectric flashlight powered by the body heat of the holder. It isn't bright, but if you are used to a world lit by fire, it doesn't need to be. Picture it, no batteries to recharge, replace, or rupture and kill the flashlight. Where the noxious chemicals would go, there is a hollow tube to let air in. When you hold it it's on, when you don't it's off. Physicists and engineers the world over should be face-palming for not having done this sooner. Ms. Makosinski, the inventor, is getting a patent on the design, and I hope it makes her some retirement money and a slightly brighter, slightly less battery-using world.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Bookworming: Zealot

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan, ****
A narrative take on the historian's view of Jesus, this one was bound to be divisive. It would be impossible to talk about the book outside of the religious and political context of our nation today, and I am not going to even try. Christians who view the Bible as God-breathed, literal truth are likely to view the book on the spectrum between deeply offensive at worst and simple dismissal at best. I am not one of those sorts of Christian. My chosen sect does not believe in scripture alone, but in scripture as the solid foundation from which be begin. And as such I personally find much more value in seeing them as historical documents in their historical context, with all the lessons and contradictions therein, than in viewing them as infallible. But what about the book itself, as a book?

In a word: stellar. Delving into what can easily be an extremely dry subject, Aslan's narrative is a surprisingly fast and flowing read. His vivid descriptions of the Temple and Jewish life lead naturally into the wider story of the relationship between Israel and Rome and back into how Jesus could have fit into the society and politics of the time. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not*, the the tale is well researched, splendidly told, and thought provoking. There is little more you can ask of a book.

* Slight spoiler alert here, read no further if you want to go in completely cold. Again, I feel the need to display my bias here. Aslan rolls into something that I have long pondered about the New Testament: that there is more Paul writing about Jesus's death than there is Gospel about his life and works. The notion of whether Jesus's original message was distorted by the "Pauline heresy" is a discussion I find fascinating for many reasons, and this is certainly coloring my view of the book somewhat. That said, this only really comes up later in the book, so it should not have swayed me too heavily.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Babylon Quotes Project

From Babylon 5 "The Face of the Enemy" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "The truth, the whole, absolute truth, is only a few days away. How many people can say that?" "I don't know, but I think the last guy got thirty pieces of silver for the same job."
  • "You haven't lost one yet, sir." "I've lost a few. Just made damn sure nobody heard about it."
  • "What's going on? You all look like a Pak'ma'ra ate your cat."
  • "It's the tyranny of evolution. Sooner or later you have a species that will have a genetic or technological advantage, and that species will always conquer the species without that advantage."
  • "The person is expendable, the job isn't."

From Babylon 5 "Intersections in Real Time" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "I am not the enemy. To be the enemy, I must have some personal stake in what happens to you. I'm not interested in that at all. I'm here to do a job, nothing more. You are a name, a file, and a case number, that is all."
  • "The truth is fluid; the truth is subjective. Out there it doesn't matter what time it is. In here it's lunchtime if you and I decide that it is. The truth is sometimes what you believe it to be, and other times what you decide it to be."
  • "Governments make policy. Soldiers have to accept those policies even when they're completely contradictory."
  • "I've always felt that if you eat a little poison every day, you get used to it. It desensitizes you until you can swallow large amounts of it with no difficulty whatsoever. I've always thought that that was a metaphor. I could just never decide what for."
  • "You've been interrogated before?" "Yes." "Anyone I know?" "You'd be surprised."
  • "I'm afraid. I've never been afraid before." "We're all afraid. Don't give them what they want."
  • "You must understand, he was expendable from the moment he arrived. We are all expendable, just parts in a machine."
  • "If anything, they'll encourage you travel, so that more people can see you as, as a symbol of the preeminent truth of our time: that you can not beat the system."

From Babylon 5 "Between the Darkness and the Light" written by J. Michael Straczynski
  • "Politically it is very wise." "Morally, it is even wiser." "Politics and morality on the same side? That doesn't happen every day, Delenn." "If someone doesn't begin making sense here, I am going to become most annoyed."
  • "She's a much better lair than you are." "Thank you. Wait a minute..."
  • "I don't watch TV. It's a cultural wasteland filled with inappropriate metaphors and an unrealistic portrayal of life created by the liberal media elite."
  • "That's the last time I'll ever trust you." "Also the first."
  • "Who is this! Identify yourself!" "Who am I? I am Susan Ivonova, Commander, daughter of Andre and Sophie Ivanov. I am the right hand of vengance and the boot that is going to kick your sorry ass all the way back to Earth, sweetheart. I am death incarnate and the last living thing that you are ever going to see. God sent me."